Put Words to the Test
Does Rufus understand your words as you intend them, or does he have a different understanding? If you always use a word in the same context, it’s easy to assume that you and your dog define it identically. Changing the context in some way offers a better understanding of what the dog perceives.
McConnell initially thought Willie knew the name of her partner, Jim. “To teach Willie, I would say, ‘Where’s Jim?’ and Jim would call Willie over. When Willie consistently went to Jim, I’d say it as Jim was driving up, and Willie would run to the window. One day, Jim was sitting on the couch, and I said, ‘Where’s Jim?’ and Willie ran to the window, all excited. This difference in definitions is more common than people realize — dogs don’t have the exact same concept of words that we do.”
While there is no question dogs can understand verbs, their definitions might differ from ours. McConnell shares a classic example that she learned from Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. “What do dogs think ‘sit’ means? We think ‘sit’ means this posture we call ‘sitting,’ but if you ask a dog who is sitting to ‘sit,’ he will very often lie down. To him, ‘sit’ might mean get lower, go down toward the ground.”
Many people tend to overestimate their dogs’ facility with words and assume that dogs and humans have a shared understanding. Because a dog responds in one context and not in another doesn’t mean he is being disobedient. As Tom Brownlee, master trainer with the American Society of Canine Trainers and instructor in Carroll College’s anthrozoology program, candidly advises owners, “If a dog’s not getting ‘it’ — whatever ‘it’ may be — then you are doing something wrong. It’s our job to help them understand.”
When you talk to your dog, consider that the words you speak might not carry the same meaning for both of you. Instead, other aspects of communication might be more relevant. Maybe the real lesson is that context, prosody and tone — rather than dictionary definitions of words — are vitally important for human communication, too.
This piece is dedicated to Professor César Ades (1943–2012) and Dr. Penny Bernstein (1947– 2012). While their exceptional contributions to the fields of animal behavior and psychology endure, their presences are greatly missed.